Montreal, from a foodie’s perspective

One word on everyone’s mind when you think about Canadian food, is poutine. Well, that and maple syrup. Speaking of which, did you know that Quebec produces about 70% of global maple syrup production? I didn’t know that either! That also explains why almost all Quebecois desserts are doused in the sugary substance. Interesting, eh?

One of those would be la tire sur la neige, also known as Canadian maple taffy. As my very limited command of French has taught me, sur la neige literally means “on top of snow”. How it’s made is that boiled maple syrup is poured on top of snow, and wrapped around a wooden popsicle stick once it cools a little, making a golden gooey mass of maple-y goodness. Just be careful not to get it in your hair though! I learnt that the hard way.

La banquise is one of the most popular poutine places in Montreal, and once I had tried it, I completely understood why. Poutine piled high with other toppings like guacamole, drowning in heaps and heaps of gravy and cheese curds… It makes a foodie like me weep. Standing in the freezing cold to get a table was totally worth it for a treat like this.

When my friends and I headed down to Quebec City that one weekend in February, we stumbled across a cute little restaurant that served only Quebecois food. Of course we had to try Quebec dishes while in the old town! Pâté chinois, oddly translated to Chinese pie, is a Quebec style shepherd’s pie. The one that I had the luck to try looked like a deconstructed version of the traditional dish, with the stewed beef resting on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes and a glorious side of preserved cherry tomatoes. It was truly the stuff of gods.

Ah, so many dishes, so little time. It was a pleasure to have experienced all that I have.

Saying goodbye

This was not how it was supposed to end. I was supposed to have stayed with everyone till the end of April, before bidding goodbye to a time well spent in Canada. Unfortunately, life had other planes in store for me, and the pandemic saw me flying back to the opposite end of the world, bypassing Manchester altogether.

Now, I am back home, back in sunny Singapore. Things could not be more different here.

You know, I’ve always had an affinity for islands. Born and raised on my island country, I moved to the UK for my studies about two years back. Then for exchange, I went to Montreal, also situated on another island. Despite being islands, all three places have been vastly different for me. Going from Montreal, where I only saw the streets start to clear themselves of snow when it hit mid-March, to Singapore, where we don’t even have the four seasons. It may sound crazy, but I miss that constant snowy weather that we had in Montreal. Now, I turn on the air-conditioning in my room everyday in a bid to refrigerate myself, very unlike how I would crank up the radiator in Montreal to remind myself of Singapore. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this moment I cannot think of anything truer.

Saying goodbye to the city wasn’t the only difficult thing. Saying goodbye to my friends, and my housemates, was really hard. As a person who has moved to many places, I should be good at saying goodbye, but I never really am. I get used to it, but I’m not good at it, if that makes sense. Living together with 29 other people, I got used to the continuous presence of friends in my life. It is so quiet now.

They say that you make lifelong friends on exchange, and I think there’s truth in that. From the numerous dinners together, to the road trips and the birthdays, these are people that I will never forget.

A love letter to Montreal

All that talk of how cold it is in Canada doesn’t actually prepare you for how cold it is in Canada when you first arrive. 

The slush that seeped into my shoes when I walked around the city for the first time wasn’t exactly the welcome I had expected, nor the teeny tiny steps that I had to take to avoid slipping on the ice. They told me that it’d be cold but I hadn’t thought that I’d lose all feeling in my hands and feet when I went ice skating one bitterly cold weekend. Or that I’d trudge through a snowstorm and end up with ice in my hair and on my glasses.

And yet, despite the snow up to my knees and the falling down on my morning walks to my biweekly classes that commence at 8:30am, I still appreciate Montreal in all of its crazy, beautiful, temperamental weather. 

At first, it’s the snow blanketing the city, and the first snowfall where I stood out in the streets with my tongue out, fully aware that I looked completely crazy to the locals. Then it’s the pure, simple joy of just making footprints in the snow. Then it’s finally the Uber ride in the aftermath of a snowstorm, where the city is sparkling from fresh snow and all of a sudden my breath is taken away by the sight of Montreal at night. We drove by a park where a happy couple bathed in the gentle yellow light, and they were twirling, twirling until they were out of sight. Sure the cold weather bites hard, but it does give back. I do think that would be the night when I fell in love with you, Montreal.

You’re always glimmering, glistening, always promising something new.

That weekend of ice skating, despite my lack of foresight and forgetting to wear thermals in -14 degree weather (please don’t be like me!), was one of the most memorable weekends I’ve had so far. Being raised in Singapore, where the heat doesn’t quit, ice rinks bring to mind indoor rinks in malls, not outdoor forests boasting 12km of skating goodness. Forest Perdue, known rightfully as the enchanted forest, truly takes your mind away from the city, and even if you’re not a good skater, you’ll probably be pretty decent after hours of practice! We ended the day by being shuttled back to the city in those little yellow buses that you see in the movies. What the movies don’t tell you though, is that these buses don’t have very good heating. Brr!

So maybe all that cold isn’t too bad after all, if it results in gems like the enchanted forest. 

Advice for future McGillians

Now that I am settled back at home in the UK and looking back at my study abroad as if it were a dream, I feel it’s time to write my final blog. I will dedicate this mostly to future McGill students and offer some specific advice for you, as I know this is harder to come by than generic advice about studying abroad.

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The Final Travels

With the end of April came the end of exams and the end of a fantastic year at McGill. Although it was sad to leave behind all I had known for the previous 8 months, I was eager to begin my travels that I had been planning and dreaming of since this Canadian experience began. At the heart of these dreams has always been road tripping through the Rocky Mountains and we took no time to hang around before embarking.

After a night stopover in the cowboy city of Calgary, we picked up the car and set off on a hefty 6 hour journey to Jasper. This took us along Icefields Parkway, the absolutely stunning road that runs between Banff and Jasper National Parks. Jasper, a small town nestled up in the dramatic mountainous landscape, was beautiful. Easily the most picturesque place I’ve ever been. Whilst in Jasper we hiked, hiked, and hiked again. The highlight was the Valley of the Five Lakes as despite being told all lakes would still be frozen at this time of the year, we discovered one of the lakes to have completely thawed to the picture perfect turquoise colour so famously associated with the Rocky Mountain. A trip back down the Icefield Parkway, with a midway stop at the dramatic Athabasca Glacier, took us to Banff where more hiking ensued, along with well needed relaxation in the thermal springs as well as some more unsuccessful bear spotting.

5 Lakes
Jasper National Park

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A Look Back at Spring Break

A highlight of my year abroad that I’m yet to blog about in detail was Spring Break. When it came to planning for this week, I was at a bit of a loose end. I hadn’t committed to any plans as most of my friends at McGill had long planned to go to Cuba. Having already been in December, I was keen to travel elsewhere in my precious week off. After a quick chat to a close friend on exchange at the University of Tennessee, I had a flight to Knoxville booked and my plan had been made. Knoxville, Asheville and Nashville… this trip couldn’t have sounded more American if I tried. Tennessee was certainly not somewhere I expected to travel on my study abroad but I was excited, although somewhat wary, about what it had to offer.

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Surviving (and enjoying) the Canadian winter

From the moment I found out I would be spending a year in Montreal, the horror stories about the crippling Canadian winters began. “Minus 30 degree temperatures every day” they said. “You won’t be able to go outdoors for months” they said. “You’ll need to spend $1000 on a Canada goose jacket and winter boots” they said. I expected and mentally prepared for the worst but soon came to realise that this worry was unnecessary. I mean, Montreal’s snow and regular sunshine versus Manchester’s grey and rainy Winters… I think I know which one I’d rather.

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A spot of ice hockey on Parc Lafontaine

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A Very White Christmas…

By James Walley, McGill University, Canada.

Having never spent a Christmas outside the bustling metropolis of rural Cheshire I was extremely excited, albeit slightly apprehensive, about spending the festive period away from home. As long as I’ve known that I will be partaking in the study abroad program, I have always been fully committed not to go home for Christmas and originally planned to use this time to travel. However, I luckily finished my semester earlier than expected and was able to take advantage of cheap mid-December flights to Cuba and returned in time to spend Christmas and New Years in Montreal.

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Topes des Collantes rainforest

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Academic Advice for Future Canada Exchange Students

By James Walley, Canada, McGill University.

After completing my first semester at McGill, I believe my academic experience over here is sufficient enough to write this blog and provide some honest advice for you future exchangers on what to expect academically and how to successfully cope with the change. As I know the academic system in many Canadian universities is similar, this blog doesn’t just apply to those of you going to McGill. Yes, I may be a Scrooge posting such a dry (but important!) blog on Christmas Eve but I hope this provides some useful festive reading.

Choosing Modules

Do this as soon as registration opens! I was not aware of how quickly the popular courses would fill up and as a result I logged in half an hour after registration opened to find most of the geography courses I had wanted to take were full up. If they are full, you may have the option of joining the wait list that will put you in line in case people drop out of the courses. However, even the wait lists were full for some of the courses I had wanted to study. This made me think outside of the box and look into other subjects and eventually I settled with two geography courses, one history and one anthropology. I have no regrets at all with my choices and I am thankful to have been forced to study outside of my ‘comfort zone’ and would recommend anyone to do the same!

Use the first week to try out as many classes as you can, as these first lectures will give you a good idea of what to expect from the course. Do not fall into the trap of thinking the lectures in the first week are not worth going to as for myself and many others we quickly learnt after this week which courses to take, helping to clear our heads and prepare ourselves for the real studying to start in week 2.

Havana

Just to brighten up this post and prove there is life outside of McGill, here’s a photo I took in Havana during my recent trip to Cuba. 

Differences from Manchester

McGill is intense. There’s no denying that. The workload is heavier than that of Manchester and you’re regularly bombarded with assignments, ‘quizzes’, mid-term exams and then final exams to top it all off. This is a lot different to Manchester, where courses are often more exam heavy with less assignments during term time. That being said, I have found the exams over here to be easier as they often only contain content from half of the course if there is both a mid-term and a final exam for that course.

Do not let the workload put you off. It’s the small price you have to pay to study at such a great university and live in this amazing city.

Coping with the new academic system

It does take a while to get used to but I can say with absolute honesty that this semester has made me not only a better student but a better person. Regular assignments mean you must keep on top of your work and the common approach back home of taking the back seat and cramming when it comes to January exams will not suffice over here. Instead, it’s important to make it your habit to keep on top of your work. For me this involved spending my afternoons in my lectures after my mornings of classes. This may not be what you want to read but because of this I feel I have become a much more efficient student and a more productive person in general, as well as helping me become more interested and involved with my courses. By getting everything done in the afternoon, you’ll also have your evenings and weekends free so it won’t sacrifice the most important aspect of your exchange… socialising and travelling.

One last tip – try to make friends with some people on your course! Everyone at McGill is super friendly and will be happy to help. I took a remote sensing class this semester that I found very difficult but was helped through it by fellow class mates, helping me to pass the course in flying colours despite being convinced I was going to fail back in September.

Tremblant

This was taken during a camping trip to Mont Tremblant National Park. An example of one of many weekends NOT spent in the library.

If you have any questions feel free to email me on james.walley@mail.mcgill.ca or james.walley@student.manchester.ac.uk (checked less regularly).

Merry Christmas!

Being back from study abroad

Hello, my name is Emily and I’m addicted to talking about study abroad.

I’m back, lads. Back in Manchester after studying abroad at McGill University and do not need much prompting at all to start talking about Canada. I don’t want to be a typical ‘Gap yah’ continually talking about my year in Canada but it’s not hard to slot into conversation something that happened in Canada, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Just to reiterate, I studied abroad for a year at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, I feel everyone needs to know.

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Settling into life in Montreal

By James Walley, McGill University, Canada.

Wow, what a start to life in Canada.

So far, my expectations have been well and truly exceeded and I am incredibly excited for what the rest of the year has to hold. I have now been here for over three weeks and so much has happened in that short space of time.

Granted, the first week was not the stress free start I wanted and instead it was filled with intense house hunting along with the tedious tasks of sorting out bank accounts and phone contracts. However, I did manage to explore the city and surrounding areas; such as downtown Montreal, Le Plateau, the old town and the beautiful Mount Royal Park, a huge urban park in the middle of the city that has an awesome view over the island of Montreal and beyond (see above). Fun fact: Mount Royal Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park.

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St Joseph’s Oratory, next to Mount Royal.

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The end of study abroad

For what seemed like ages, going on study abroad was my next big thing to prepare for and look forward to, but after what seems like a blink of an eye, it’s over. I’m still getting my head round this and will probably not need much prompting at all to talk about my year for the foreseeable future (hopefully not in too much of a gap-yah style).

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